“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open” Jawaharial Nehru
Sometimes in life all you can do is throw everything you have into a backpack and head out into the wilderness on the quest for adventure. Following Holi festival in Kathmandu, me and Bryan did exactly that; we packed our bags, collected our trekking permits from the tourism department, booked our bus and travelled north-east into the Himalayas to begin our multi-week trek through the mountains of Nepal. The bus ride was an adventure itself; taking off early in the morning, we boarded the cramped minibus with the locals and spent eleven long hours negotiating the difficult terrain and incredibly bumpy, muddy roads as we headed to the small town of Shivalaya that was situated a couple of hundred kilometres from our final destination. Outside of Kathmandu the rural culture immediately became apparent – from observing porters carrying enormous loads on their backs up hills, to the increased presence of Buddhist temples and culture, to watching a small group of school children heading home in the back of a dump truck alongside a precarious cliff road. Yes, it soon became clear we were out the city and ascending into the romantic, mountainous vision of Nepal. Ahh the aura of adventurous excitement on a voyage into the unknown! The next morning me and Bryan studied the map, assembled our backpacks, strapped ourselves up, and headed off into the topsy-turvy terrain of North-Eastern Nepal to follow the original route taken on the first successful expedition of Mount Everest back in 1953.
Bryan himself was an experienced trekker having completed many routes in New Zealand including a two-week solitary journey around the completely isolated Stewart Island: a small, forested piece of land that lay below the South Island at the bottom of the world (yes he was weird like me – probably why we got on). Although less experienced, I had completed a few treks in South America and New Zealand including treks that reached hikes of 5000m+ above sea level, meaning I felt no doubt naively confident about the altitude we would be dealing with (on this trek we would regularly be travelling through towns and passes of 3000m+ to eventually reach 5550m). We had made sure we were equipped also, and between us we had all standard equipment bases covered and all that jazz. This was good to know following a past accident in New Zealand where me and a friend had set out under-equipped, got lost following a small wrong turn, ran out of daylight and had to call for rescue. Besides that, we were also not alone as we hiked alongside an Australian couple and a few other faces who were following the same path through the mountains – not to mention the regular passing of other Nepalis travelling between towns and carrying supplies. I guess watching old men carry 50kg of supplies and large planks of wood up steep hills made me feel a bit better about the pain of my 15kg backpack; just simply a tourist to those guys I guess.
The first days were quite literally filled with highs and lows as we ascended terrain of 1000m+ only to come straight back down and then straight back up. The frustration! I’m not sure what else I should have imagined trekking through the Himalayas, but I didn’t imagine it to be so extreme just passing through towns, villages and valleys. To me it was very tiresome but to the local people of the mountains, such journeys were just a part of everyday life. From young school children to elderly Buddhist women to working town porters – the relentless climbing and descending of these paths was a part of their nature in living amongst this mountainous environment. And what an environment it was! The further we trekked, the more Nepal showcased its natural beauty through its vegetation, rivers, valleys and mountains. At the end of the third day we arrived at a place situated in the perfect location in a valley to see the world’s highest mountains in the distance. Initially it was cloudy and the view was obscured, then – from outside the window of my room – I heard an excited commotion of some trekkers below. I leaned out the window to try to see what all the excitement was about and looked to the horizon. I knew it was most likely that they could see one of 8000m peaks so I looked again to the distance up into the clouds. Then – as I turned my neck a bit higher – I saw a strip of black ridge emerge almost flirtatiously from the clouds above and I was rendered in complete and instant awe. These mountains were well over 60km away but still towered monstrously on the horizon. It was a frighteningly beautiful moment to see one of these monsters in the flesh for the first time and can genuinely say I was truly shook by their stature and magnificence. Damn, nature you crazy thing. It made us eager to press on and continue towards Everest base camp with big grins on our faces – pretending we were gonna summit the damn thing or something.
As we continued on our journey we grew into the nature of trekking more and more. There’s something almost primal about carrying everything you have on the back and following a map to the next destination day by day. All that mattered was putting one foot in front of the other and to keep on keeping on. You woke; you walked; you ate; you slept. It really was that simple. As a self-identified minimalist, such a simplistic lifestyle appealed to me; too often in my opinion we lust over irrelevant and frivolous things – working longer hours, over-consuming and neglecting loved ones and passions to celebrate the notion of ‘being busy’. To be happy with just a few possessions and simple, cost-less things like walks in nature has almost become a revolutionary act in the West. We are always told to work more, earn more, consume more and keep up with the capitalist rat race, forgetting that the best things in life are quite often free.
The stays at local tea-houses each night made me reflect further on this; I observed extremely humble people with no conveniences, no gas, no televisions or general electronics living enriched and happy lives. In particular one night we reached a completed isolated tea-house on a snowy pass atop of a mountain to find a joyful mother and daughter living a simplistic, solitary life of hosting trekkers in their tea-house. Another night we stayed with a very quiet, still and unassuming man who had a quiet aura of immense confidence about him – we later found out he was a Sherpa who had summited Everest, alongside his son who had also summited the world’s highest mountain seven times. What a man! The happiness, adaptation and coexistence with the Himalayas was great to see at times. That being said, I would be a fool to deny the countless benefits of western culture and to confess I would be very hesitant to swap places – especially witnessing the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake and watching the tough existence of the porters carrying ridiculous weights on their backs up hill. Working life was horrendously tough in the mountains of Nepal, especially for the young men who could always be found chipping away at rocks and herding cattle over vast distances. It made me ponder whether it would ever be possible to blend the benefits of eastern and western culture to cultivate a materially developed but relaxed, humble and present-minded culture? I know, I know – the big questions of life among the mountains of the Himalayas. Such a cliché.
Anyway, back to the journey. As the days passed we moved closer and closer to the Everest national park. Most people who undertake the trek, fly into a place called Lukla to begin there. However, budget conscious and willing to undertake a larger journey, we started a week’s walk before the traditional starting point. Although this seemed a good idea at the time, I was really regretting the decision at times. The constant bad smells of clothes, the occasional bad stomach, the exhaustion, the times getting stuck behind the ‘donkey train’ on the paths where they would crap and pass gas as they walked in front of you – there really was a wide variety of things to test your mental and physical stamina on this journey. Bryan had also picked up an injury in his knee which made the relentless ascending and descending somewhat difficult. However, powered by a lust for adventure, a wish to see the world’s largest mountain and ‘Dal Bhat’ (a traditional Nepali dish – “Dal power, 24 hour”) we persevered and eventually made it to Namche Bazaar – the last big town before the highlands of the Everest region where we finally took a day off to rest and prepare for the main event.
Past Namche Bazaar is when the natural environment really began to showcase its immense beauty. The walk immediately became busier with more and more trekkers on the route, but it was easy to understand why. As we emerged past the wooded areas and valleys, we began to enter an otherworldly environment of towering white peaks, glaciers and Mars-like, arid landscapes. Me and Bryan were still sharing the path with the Australian couple which was nice in that we could appreciate the journey, experience and changing of environments with other people. It had been an arduous journey for all of us and it was great to finally get close up to the roof of the world. As we ascended higher and higher, we became increasingly engulfed by the enormity of the mountains. Soon famous peaks such as Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Lhotse Shar and, of course, Mount Everest came into spectacular view. I had seen some mountains in South America and New Zealand, but nothing of the dramatic nature of these absolute beasts. They shot up from the ground, dominated the skyline and encapsulated you into their jagged universe.
Alongside marvelling at our surroundings, we also had to attend with the phenomenon of altitude sickness. We were soon over 4000m above sea level which could make people a little weak at the knees and a little dizzy in the head. People who flew into Lukla and ascended like madmen often found themselves victims of this illness, and occasionally people would have to be rescued by helicopter such was the extremity of the sickness. Fortunately our long ascent to the highlands meant we were well acclimatised – and by ensuring we only ascended 500m a day – we were soon in good health and well positioned to make the final push to the summit of Kala Patthar – a ‘hill’ that sat at 5550m above sea level in front of Mount Everest and Lhotse. The view from there was immensely anticipated as it offered one of the best views in the world by showcasing a total panorama view of the world’s highest mountains. It was the type of place you would see in some Hollywood movie as the main protagonist made their last phone call to a loved one as they lay dying or something like that. As dramatic as it gets; nature at its best. Eager to experience it for ourselves, we journeyed onward alongside other trekkers and Yaks – large bull-like beasts that were used to transport supplies to such extreme heights. The temperature got colder; our breathes got deeper. We were close.
Eventually, thirteen days after we set off from Kathmandu, we kicked our feet, gasped for breath and trudged the final few metres of Kala Patthar to complete the arduous, testing but beautiful trek through the Himalayas. Not to sound like an excited child, but the view was seriously good stuff – the sort of view that lay seared into your eyeballs and memory until old age as you bored your grandchildren with tales of your youth. Across the valley from us lay the Khumbu Glacier snaking its way up the base of Everest which rose and rose and rose into the immensity of the sky. Next to it, just as impressive, lay Lhotse – a knife-shaped mountain that cut through the clouds as it rose to 8500m – just 300m shy of Everest. Dangerous looking ridges and glaciers were adorned by these monsters and I tried and tried to imagine what absolute nutcases would want to dance the deathly dance of conquering such inaccessible and extreme environments – the absolute pinnacle of human endurance and exploration. The peaks lay 3km higher than where I stood, and I was already struggling for breath at this ‘mere’ height of 5.5km. To go up there into ‘the death zone’ was truly a horrifying prospect. These mountains were intimidating. They were beautiful. They were terrifying. They were immense products of our planet earth.
In total me and Bryan spent three hours gawping like children at the views around us in this jungle of daunting, towering mountains. We were incredibly lucky to spend the first hour up there all by ourselves ‘soaking it in’ – absorbing and appreciating the amazing view we were gifted with in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Although we had parted with the Australian couple, it was great to find out that the guy had later proposed atop the hill – surely one of the greatest places on earth to commit such a task. Eventually, with contentment, an anticipation of home comforts and a little bit of sadness, it was time to come down and begin the long journey back down the mountains to the safety of civilisation. Following one more bout of illness and a now dangerous depletion of body weight, we decided to take a 45 minute flight out of the world’s most dangerous airport of Lukla and back to the capital of Kathmandu. It was the end of this adventure, until the next one began anyway…